A fact about writing: no one ever gets it right on the first try.
Trimming the fat is an essential part of the process. Every first draft has suboptimal word choices, hanging plotlines, bad dialogue, or even just too much writing. It’s this last one I’d like to focus on: if we know that we’re going to have to cut a scene, why even bother writing it?
Easy. Because cutting a few thousand words from a rough draft doesn’t mean the impact of those words won’t resonate in the final draft. Quite the opposite, in fact.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a conversation between two characters. We’ll call them Roscoe and Winifred, because those names are fun to say.
Roscoe and Winifred decide to take a trip together, and they stop along the highway for dinner. Which reminds Winifred about this one time when she met an alien at a rest stop in Tucson. The alien informed her that an intergalactic fleet would be along on the first day of 2017, which just so happens to be the day Winifred and Roscoe are having this conversation. They pay for their meal, step outside, and boom…there’s the intergalactic alien fleet, waiting in line for milkshakes.
Success! You’ve set up a story—albeit a weird one.
But what if you extend Roscoe and Winifred’s conversation a little, just to see where it goes? Maybe Roscoe reveals that when he was a kid, he told all the other kids at school that an alien landed in his backyard, just so they would pay attention to him. He was lying, of course, but he confesses that it was nice to be popular, at least for a little while.
Is Roscoe’s confession entirely relevant to this chapter? Probably not—this scene is about Winifred and an alien landing, not Roscoe. But still, you’ve discovered something about your character that you didn’t know before: Roscoe was a shy kid longing for attention, and he was imaginative enough to manufacture it.
As in this example, overwriting is a great way to flesh out supporting characters that might not get the attention your main characters get. Secondary characters are important, but there’s rarely enough space in a manuscript to lend to their backstory. So don’t be afraid to overwrite a little for the sake of supporting characters, and then cut it back later. The more you write about them, the more you’ll learn about them. And that will help them feel authentic to your readers.
Writing more than we think we need is never a waste of time. It’s like digging in the sand at a beach; there’s no telling what we’ll discover.
I mean, without Winifred and Roscoe, we’d never know that aliens like milkshakes.